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Regional Interests

A ‘Stimulus Gap’: Why Many Undocumented Californians Are Missing Out on Pandemic Aid Meant For T

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Leydi was worried.

It was April and she hadn’t filed her taxes yet.

Not because she didn’t want to, but because she couldn’t. Leydi and her family are undocumented immigrants living in California (only their first names are being used in this story due to their immigration status).

They are eligible to receive a rebate of up to $2,400 as part of the Golden State Stimulus. The $7.6 billion plan, approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom in February, offers a one-time payment of $600 to taxpayers who earned less than $30,000 in 2020, and an additional $600 to undocumented workers.

Last year was extremely difficult financially for Leydi’s family, who live in San Francisco’s Mission District. She and her husband lost their jobs, so this aid, one of the few government assistance programs they qualify for, would make a big difference.

But to get the rebate, Leydi and her husband, Jorge, have to file their taxes. And for undocumented immigrants without Social Security numbers, that requires getting an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) from the Internal Revenue Service. To request one, applicants need to confirm their identities and foreign status by providing documentation like a birth certificate, driver’s license or passport.

That’s where Leydi’s troubles began. Both her husband and son did not have a valid passport from Mexico, where they’re from. Only the Mexican consulate could grant them one, and for weeks, they had been trying, unsuccessfully, to book an appointment through Mexitel, the government’s help line.

“I started to get really desperate because we were only missing the passports and we were falling behind in this process,” Leydi said in Spanish.

“For about two months, I was calling every day. Sometimes I would not get a response, other times the call would not go through or all the lines were busy,” Jorge added, in Spanish.

Across the country, there are 50 Mexican consulates serving the roughly 11 million Mexican citizens in the United States. Two are in the Bay Area — in San Francisco and San Jose — and both sites request that appointments be made through Mexitel.

Jorge says he called so many times he even figured out the schedule of the operators at the other end of the line. “I would start calling at 10 a.m. and only hear the line ring and no one would pick up my call till 2 p.m.,” he said.

When he did finally connect with an operator, the only available appointments he was offered were months away or at other consulates far from the Bay Area. At the time, Leydi and Jorge had just started working again, and missing a day or two to travel to consulates in Sacramento or Los Angeles would mean losing out on possible income their family sorely needed.

“It’s complicated for us to plan a trip like this out of the blue,” Leydi said.

Running out of options and with the May 17 filing deadline fast approaching, they went directly to the San Francisco consulate to personally request an appointment. When they were not let in the building, they insisted on waiting outside until they received some kind of response.

One of the staffers finally came out and told them if they brought a letter from an advocacy organization or lawyer affirming that they urgently needed the passports, they could book an emergency appointment.

Unable to afford a lawyer, they reached out to the Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) in San Francisco for help.

Dairo Romero is the community initiatives manager at MEDA, and this year he has helped dozens of families, many of whom are undocumented, file their taxes for the first time.

Dairo Romero, right, with the Mission Economic Development Agency, a helps an undocumented immigrant her file taxes on May 19, 2021, at the Mission Food Hub in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Romero agreed to write a letter vouching for Leydi, explaining that they urgently needed the passports, which allowed them to finally book an appointment at the consulate.

“We felt so much more relieved,” said Jorge, holding on tightly to his passport.

But Romero points out that this method has its limitations.

“I’ve written about six cards explaining why the consulate needs to prioritize the passport process, because it’s a document that will be needed later on in processes like filing taxes or applying for affordable housing,” he said.

“But I don’t want to promote the letters because I’ve gotten so many calls, even from people I don’t know, asking for me to write letters for them.”

A ‘Stimulus Gap’

Romero has tried to help many other families going through similar situations, including ones from El Salvador and Guatemala, where California’s second and third largest Latin American immigrant populations are from, after Mexico.

He says he’s concerned many undocumented immigrants who would otherwise qualify to receive the state’s rebate checks are missing out because of difficulties navigating the consular system.

Little data is available on how many eligible undocumented immigrants are missing out on the Golden State Stimulus.

But an April study from the California Policy Lab may provide some clues. The report found that 2.2 million low-income Californians may be missing out on $5.7 billion in federal stimulus checks — a disparity it labels the “stimulus gap.” And although undocumented immigrants are not eligible to receive the federal stimulus, it’s likely that a sizeable portion of those 2.2 million people identified in the study are also undocumented.

“There’s been a lot of focus … about how these credits are going to lift people out of poverty,” said Aparna Ramesh, a senior research manager at CPI and a co-author of the report. “That’s certainly true. But I think the bottom line is they’re only going to lift people out of poverty if people actually receive the credits.”

Romero, from MEDA, emphasizes how critical an ITIN can be for an undocumented person navigating aid programs during the pandemic, and how the complicated process of getting one can often drag things out even further.

“Because of the pandemic, these cases are fairly common,” Romero said, noting that many consulates limited their services due to health restrictions. “The process itself of receiving a passport is fairly easy but the problem is that there are no available appointments.”

’We’ll Never Be up to Date’

Nelda De León, an immigrant from Guatemala who lives in San Francisco, spent days trying to make an appointment with the Guatemalan consulate in San Francisco to secure a dual citizenship for her niece. When she finally got a response, the earliest available appointment was December.

“It’s not easy, but this is something we need to do. It’s not fair because this amount of time should not be spent this way,” she said in Spanish.

De León repeatedly insisted that the call center connect her directly with the Guatemalan consulate in San Francisco, and when they finally did, she managed to book an appointment the following week.

She says some of her friends tried to find an appointment to get their passport for their ITIN application, but weren’t able to find a time before the federal tax deadline, and are now scrambling to find the other types of accepted documentation.

“I understand the distress Guatemalans feel when they say no one is picking up,” said Sylvia Wohlers Gomar de Meie, the Guatemalan consul general in San Francisco.

Wohlers started running the San Francisco consulate two years ago and has pushed for her office to expand its operations to meet the needs of the growing Guatemalan population she tries to serve in Northern California and Nevada. But she points out that while she and her staff are intimately familiar with the costs of running their consulate, they do not control their office’s budget.

That amount is calculated thousands of miles away in Guatemala City.

Sylvia Wohlers Gomar de Meie, the Guatemalan consul general in San Francisco, acknowledges that the need for consular services in the Bay Area is much greater than her office’s capacity. And while she’d like to bring in more staff, she says doing so would require authorization from Guatemalan authorities. (Carlos Cabrera-Lomelí/KQED)

“In Guatemala, the same thing has happened as other countries during the pandemic. Economic activity has gone down tremendously,” she said. “So we have to be extremely careful with the funds that we operate with.”

At the same time, Wohlers explains, the need for consular services has significantly increased during the pandemic, even as her office has only been able to operate at limited capacity.

“It’s a race against time,” she said, noting that if she wants to hire more staffers or even pay for more hours for existing employees, she needs to get approval from Guatemala’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We’ll never be up to date. Never. Because the need of the population we serve is greater every time. We’re fighting to catch up, but it’s difficult doing so,” Wohlers said, noting that her office hopes to open up additional appointments starting on June 15, when California eases pandemic restrictions.

Through separate statements, the Mexican consulates in San Francisco and San Jose both said their capacity to offer appointments during the pandemic has also been limited due to health restrictions.

Alejandra Bologna Zubikarai, the Mexican consul general in San Jose, said in a statement in Spanish that her office “works at almost 100% capacity,” with some 1,000 appointments booked each week for passports and other identification documents.

A visit to the Mexitel website on May 26 showed there were no available appointments to file for a passport over the next two weeks — the only period that the website shares information for — at either the San Francisco or San Jose consulates.

Bologna pointed out that the consulate does offer emergency appointments in case someone can’t wait for the next available slot. But those who use this option must pay an extra 30% in fees to process a passport.

When Leydi and Jorge managed to get an emergency appointment for their passports, they were surprised when they saw this additional charge. “Many [immigrants] just can’t pay that extra 30%,” Jorge said.

KQED reached out to the Salvadoran consulate for an interview multiple times but did not get an official response. Several calls were made during April and May to the phone number listed on the consulate’s Facebook page for booking an appointment. Each time, the automatic recording said all operators were busy and to call back later.

Ramón Cardona, director of Centro Latino Cuzcatlan, an immigration and naturalization legal services center in El Cerrito, works with several Salvadoran families. He’s a Salvadoran immigrant himself and has worked in immigration advocacy for several decades.

“Folks tell me that they are calling for days and days for someone to finally respond … but it is always the automatic recording, and no real person ever seems to respond. On the occasion a person responds, you’re transferred to another call center and it’s the same thing all over again, calling, calling and calling,” Cardona said in Spanish.

Like Romero, Cardona has also written multiple letters for families in need of an appointment. He’s met Salvadoran immigrants who have traveled to San Francisco from places as far away as Oregon and Utah, only to be turned down at the doors of the consulate because they did not have an appointment.

Cardona suggests consulates should clearly communicate how to most effectively schedule an appointment, especially when the need for one is urgent.

The labyrinth of calls someone may have to go through may not just impact their ITIN process, but could also seriously delay immigration proceedings, Cardona points out.

“An immigration process takes years,” he said. “And it could take even longer just because your consulate is not able to give you a passport.”

Resources for People Still Trying to File Their Taxes

If you haven’t filed your taxes yet or are looking to apply for an ITIN, there are several options still available. When filing, you can let your preparer know you have not received your Golden State Stimulus check yet.

The IRS is still accepting ITIN applications. The agency website says that it takes about seven weeks for an applicant to receive one.

There are a few organizations in the Bay Area that still offer free tax aid, as well as help applying for an ITIN (although only the IRS can actually provide an ITIN).

Alameda County:

San Antonio CDC offers appointments and drop-off filing services all year around except during July and December holidays. Assistance is available in English, Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin. Appointments are usually available from Monday through Friday. Call (510) 536-5179 to set up a time.

Contra Costa County:

SparkPoint/Bay Point Works ECC starts offering drop-off filing services and ITIN assistance starting June 2. Support is available in English and Spanish. Before dropping off, call (925) 252-2331 after 9:30 a.m.

San Francisco:

Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) will offer both walk-ins and appointments for assistance in the ITIN process in English and Spanish. Call (415) 612-2014 to check availability. Chinese Newcomers Service Center offers virtual appointments in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Vietnamese. Call (415) 421-2111 to make an appointment from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Solano County:

Benicia Community Action Council offers drop-off tax aid until October 30. Assistance is only available in English. Best times to drop off tax information are between Tuesday and Thursday. For more, call (707) 745-0900.

Mary Franklin Harvin and Carly Severn contributed to this post.

Copyright 2021 KQED